A Few (too many) words about Ryokan's Poetry
In a recent teaching from Taigu (a particularly beautiful one called "Original Face, Dogen's Words), he says that poetry doesn’t need to be unraveled, a sentiment I completely agree with. As a (sometimes) teacher of literature, I’m constantly trying to tell students that they should not try to figure out what a poem means. To stop figuring out poems. To not even think there’s something to figure out. Most of us all know this, but typically people new to poems/literature in general always think of a poem as puzzle (especially in the west) – how do all these parts fit together and what does it all mean?
It’s pretty much the same mistake we make with life.
That being said, I love playing with a poem’s meaning and making meaning out of myself from the poem, or at other times just being with a poem, while at still other times going deeply into and disappearing with a poem – it all depends on the poem.
But this is just a little introduction to what I’d really like to talk about for a few minutes: Ryokan and what a Ryokan poem does. In other words, what Ryokan’s poems do to me. See, I think it’s a lot more helpful to talk about poetry, and art in general, as a thing which does something to (or maybe better put, with) the audience/reader, or as a thing which is done between audience and artist and art-object, all together at once, doing together, being done. So, the easiest way to talk about this is to talk about what Ryokan’s poems do to me, this little limited self with his little limited views. So let’s begin with a line or two from Ryokan, from some of his “Chinese” poems, the first stanza from One Robe, One Bowl:
One narrow path surrounded by a dense forest;
On all sides, mountains lie in darkness.
The autumn leaves have already fallen.
No rain, but still the rocks are dark with moss.
Returning to my hermitage along a way known to few,
Carrying a basket of fresh mushrooms
And a jar of pure water from the temple well.
Before I say too much, I want to indicate that I understand that just the idea of talking of poetry like this, which is profound and simple, as clear and pure as the pure water in Ryokan’s jug, is fraught with complexities. How does one talk about pure water, blue sky? But I’m a writer and part of my job (and I see it as much more than a job, more than just a hobby, and also, at the same time, of no importance at all) is this: to say that what this poem does to me is make me live some other life, allow a glimpse of some simple and profound and also lonely “way” that is “known to few”; what this poem, over two hundred years old, does is bring me to that “narrow path” on the way to Ryokan’s “hermitage” – it pulls me into this near-winter forest, returning to my (now reading myself as Ryokan; Ryokan and I one) lonely place; what’s paradoxical here is that while the poem transports me to Japan, probably sometime in the late 1700’s, it also makes me fully present now, here, wherever I might be, present with what is, which is just another way of saying the poem gets me gone a little. Please know, also, that all of this is instantaneous when reading. It just happens, and it’s only upon reflection that I realize (or think I realize) what has happened. And furthermore, it’s only through language that whatever this poem does instantly in the moment gets turned into a kind of chronological thing (which seems to be three things, all at once, all perfectly simple, but which in language I can only express chronologically and linearly and complexly: 1) it transports me to the past, 2) turns me into a simple hermit, and 3) opens me up to what is, no more me, everything just as it is). So, this very simple experience with Ryokan’s poem, upon reflection, gets turned into something that seems fairly complex, and that is sometimes seen as a negative thing: too complex, you know? But all this complexity really is is my playing with a poem – and this is the thing that I try to convey to my literature students (please don’t think I’m trying to teach anything now, I’m just sharing): that the best way to engage with a poem is to be with it and let it be you and then to play. Maybe you’ll make some meaning and maybe you won’t, but what will certainly happen is you and the poem.
As a kind of addition to the above thoughts, and a more pointedly Zennie aspect of these thoughts on Ryokan, I’d like to add that I often read something before sitting Zazen. I especially like to read a poem of Ryokan’s and as Jundo often says, Sit with that. Zazen, Shikantaza, is not an attitude. But I think it’s very beautiful (and possibly helpful) to approach sitting with a certain attitude. Maybe this is what Dogen calls Way-seeking Mind, though that, I think, is probably something much bigger than attitude (please excuse me: now that we’re into Zen talk and not poetry, I know very very little). But for me, it’s all much simpler: if I sit with an attitude of awareness, let-go-Mind allows itself to be itself. So, I like reading a little before sitting because if I don’t, sometimes it’s easy for me to think: “Okay, I have to go sit now, crap, I have to make dinner and do laundry and get ready for work tomorrow and grade papers,” etc. And that seems to be the wrong mind to sit with. I don’t mean it’s bad; we all must sit this way sometimes. But if I’m always sitting this way, I’m more of a bump on the log, not present or aware at all, not sharp, and I’m really missing something and I’m probably not really sitting Zazen (though there’s no wrong Zazen). So for this reason, I like to read something like this:
The vicissitudes of this world are like the movements of the clouds.
Fifty years of life are nothing but one long dream.
Sparse rain: in my desolate hermitage at night,
Quietly I clutch my robe and lean against the empty window.
These lines do a number of things: they remind me of Jundo's teachings (the constant coming and going of clouds); they remind me of Taigu's teachings (he often discusses and reminds us of this “long dream”); and they remind me that Ryokan’s “desolate hermitage” is also mine, is all of ours, and Ryokan, who was often joyful and playful, also gave us poems of great loneliness, and that is felt here; finally, these lines remind me that we’re all, however lonely/alone, also clutching the Buddha’s robe and leaning against the “empty window,” everything empty. And so I think these lines, and others like them from Ryokan, allow us to consider: where is our desolate, lonely hermitage? Where is our robe? Where are the mountains in the rain in our life? Where the moon and where the dream?
Anyway, thanks for reading and Gassho.